Schoolroom With A View
Whether it’s basic education or vocational skills, teaching in South Africa suffers from two big problems: access to teachers and access to materials. Geography, politics and societal issues all play a role, but when it comes to solutions, there’s one that is yet to meet its full potential: the internet.
For several years now, educators in all fields have been working to harness the power of online to amplify the capacity of skilled teachers to reach more prospective pupils through video.
In Mpumalanga, for example, the Ligbron Academy of Technology has been sharing its maths and science teachers with schools in a 300km radius using videoconferencing tools since 2009. It now reaches over 5 000 Grade 12 learners a week. Similar pilots have been under way in the Free State.
The Gauteng MEC for education, Panyaza Lesufi, has said he wants to see township schools sharing resources with suburban model Cs, helping poorer students access technical teachers and middle-class schools find local-language teachers.
Live videoconferencing is tough, however, when high-speed internet connections are few and far between.
Chris Mills is a co-founder of Paper Video, a South African firm that specialises in education videos for high-school learners.
“Online learning has been a popular trend for around the last decade,” says Mills. “However, a lot of platforms assume developed infrastructure, such as access to the internet. For example, the vast majority of online learning organisations in South Africa require an internet connection, and hence exclude the vast majority of students.”
Paper Video specialises in pre-recorded videos, which may not have the immediacy of a live videoconference, but as millions of YouTube-trained DIY fanatics worldwide can verify, they’re still excellent ways to pick up skills.
The firm was founded in July 2014, when Mills and business partner Paul Maree uploaded 53 exam questions and solution videos for Grade 12 mathematics. By September, Paper Video had amassed over 2 000 online users and 37 000 video views. It now provides learning materials for mathematics, physical sciences, life sciences, natural sciences and accounting from Grade 8 to 12, and is working with the Department of Basic Education to develop tools not just for pupils, but for teachers who may not be as well-versed in their subjects as one would hope, too.
“South Africa has very well-established distance learning through Unisa. However, online learning here is still in its infancy,” says Mills. “One of the major obstacles facing South African students in receiving a meaningful education is the lack of access to qualified educators and extra tuition opportunities.
“Our long-term goal,” he continues, “is to ensure that every student in our country can gain instant and easy access to an experienced, engaging extra teacher, irrespective of their circumstances. This is all made possible thanks to the rise of mobile devices such as smartphones, which are becoming ever-more ubiquitous among all income groups of South Africa.”
Delivering a lesson via a video camera isn’t straightforward, however. Even the best teacher in a classroom environment may produce a poor-quality, boring video, or even videoconference.
Mills says the critical criteria include a deep enough knowledge of the learning content to be able to explain concepts in a simple manner and preempt the pitfalls experienced by learners. Of particular importance for online teachers, he says, is the ability to be engaging, and even entertaining, in front of the camera.
Will we ever see online learning taking over the centuries-old-style classroom setup? Mills reckons not. “Learning is a social activity and there are advantages to live interaction with a teacher that cannot be replaced by any technology that we currently know of,” he says.